Landing craft set to deliver exploration robot to the Moon

Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University researchers have completed structural assembly of a lunar landing craft that will deliver a robot called Red Rover to the Moon in 2014.

The half-ton aluminium structure will now be shipped to Boeing facilities in El Segundo, California, for shake testing to confirm its integrity and its compatibility with the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Astrobotic plans to land the spacecraft, carrying the robot and a commercial payload, on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquillity or on the Marius Hills next to a recently discovered ’skylight’ leading down into a volcanic cave.

The solar-powered Red Rover will broadcast high-definition video to Earth as the four-wheeled robot explores the Moon.

Astrobotic aims to claim up to $36m (£22m) in awards, one of which is from the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30m competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the Moon, travel 500m and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.

‘This lunar lander will be a key part of our initial Moon mission and we expect to re-use this design for a series of missions,’ said William ’Red’ Whittaker, CMU professor of robotics and Astrobotics’ chief executive officer and chief technical officer.

When the craft is completed, the deck will support four spherical fuel tanks capable of carrying almost two tons of propellant.

A single main engine controlling the lander’s descent will sit below the deck and eight thrusters on the deck’s periphery will provide stability.

A cone-shaped structure on top of the deck will connect to the 173lb Red Rover. The lander can also carry up to 242lb of commercial payload and will have rechargeable batteries and solar panels capable of providing 500W of power during daylight.

In February, Astrobotic signed a contract with SpaceX to launch its mission on a Falcon 9 rocket, the same vehicle that NASA will use to send supplies to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 will throw the Astrobotic spacecraft into a lunar trajectory for a four-day cruise to the Moon.